Friday, February 14, 2014

Power, Class, and Status at New York Fashion Week

cell phone Jeremy Scott
I've been thinking a lot the last few days about how power is performed, displayed, and reinforced at New York Fashion Week. There are, of course, the obvious ways, the most obvious of all being what early Twentieth Century social critic Thorstein Veblen once labeled "conspicuous consumption." In the context of NYFW, this is enacted through the wearing of expensive brands few people can afford. But plenty of people, walking the sidewalks of NYFW can afford expensive clothes, and plenty of others have them gifted or loaned to them by fashion brands looking to have their products featured on street style websites. There is a glut of expensive clothes on view. It hardly makes one conspicuous. The powerful have other ways of demonstrating their significance. Take, for example, this common move exhibited by Vogue Nipon editor Anna Della Russo (above) and New York stylist/"entrepreneur"/street style star Michelle Harper (below). We could call it the "I'm-too-busy-making-connections-with-other-powerful-people-to-pay-any-attention-to-the-photographers" move. Michelle Harper one-upped her competition on this move at Prabal Gurung, performing it while wearing a totally transparent top, simultaneously drawing attention to herself while pretending not to care. Nothing reads quite as powerful as apparent indifference to being noticed.

American Vogue editor Anna Wintour (below) is an absolute master of the cell-phone move, perhaps because she really is on the phone with powerful people at any given time. But she ups her game even further through the fine art of staring through photographers. "You're not even there," her stare reads. "I could walk right through you. And if you fell down as a result, I would step right over you and keep walking."

What a great luxury it is at Fashion Week to be so powerful and influential that you don't need to be photographed. Anna's brand is so established, so utterly secure, she doesn't need to do any work to build it any further. Not everyone is in that position. Many, if not most, of the budding style stars at New York Fashion Week work the crowd of photographers in whatever way they can. Marie Claire editor Kyle Anderson showed up at Jeremy Scott and Reed Krakoff on Wednesday in this ridiculous car. He posed for dozens of photographers, soaked up the exposure. When someone shouted to him that he was late for the show, he told us that he didn't care. He wasn't planning on attending anyway. Kyle's blatant stunt may have backfired on him, however. He was immediately picked up by the fashion press and labeled as a "publicity whore."
car Jeremy Scott publicity stunt
Any obvious grab for attention in the fashion world reads as a misfired attempt at upward mobility. It is a challenge to one's status, not an enhancement of it. The powerful have to appear not to care. They show up late. They "don't want to be photographed." They dress in simple (but extremely expensive) black clothes. They don't need you to notice them. But they do need you to care. For in the fashion world, as in any major industry, power is measured by the ability to make people wait. And it is measured by the ability to make people come to you. Which is, of course, why so many of the big shows at fashion week happen "off site." The more remote the location of their show, the more important a brand is. Just look at Alexander Wang's small coup at this New York Fashion Week. He held his show at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, forcing editors, buyers, and journalists (i.e. the powerful of the industry), to ferry over from Manhattan to catch it. The result: Wang's spot at the top of the fashion hierarchy has been secured.
One of the most visually-striking juxtapositions in NYFW street-style photos for me, is the appearance in so many of them of people who either have nothing whatsoever to do with Fashion Week, or who are doing the less glamorous work of preparing for it that is usually hidden behind the scenes. Construction workers and security crews are the most common examples. They have become a frequent backdrop in street-style photos, whether intentionally or not, lending them a kind of gritty ambience and emphasizing just how far removed Fashion Week is from most peoples' lives. In these images, the workers look on with a mixture of fascination and disdain. Who could blame them? There is something so gaudy and obnoxious about Fashion Week, so callously self-obsessed. These photos remind us that there is real labor behind these events, lots of real labor. They take an enormous amount of work to put on. But what we see is just the show on the sidewalks and the runways, the powerful making sure we notice just how little they care if we notice. 


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